Interview: Esther Rantzen

Esther Rantzen, founder of Childline and The Silver Line Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Esther Rantzen, founder of Childline and The Silver Line Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
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Broadcaster Esther Rantzen is on the phone. She comes down the line, loud and clear, charming, polite, professional and she wants to talk.

She wants to talk about Childline, the child protection charity she set up more than 30 years ago to give vital free and confidential support to children and young people over the phone and online.

She wants to talk about the positive impact of fundraising on Childline, in particular about the efforts of Scotmid Co-operative who last year chose it as their charity of the year, raising more than £345,000 to allow Childline to answer around 85,000 calls, emails and online messages from children and young people in Scotland.

She also wants to talk about The Silver Line, the charity she founded in 2013 to do for older people what Childline did for the young – listen and help with a free, confidential 24/7 phone line to combat isolation, loneliness, harm and provide information, advice, as well as friendship through its telephone befriending service and conference calls.

And finally, she wants to talk to you if you have used Childline in the past in Scotland. She’d love you to come forward as she wants to meet you and hear how it helped. And if your name is Fiona and were a volunteer counsellor for the charity in Glasgow in the 1990s, she particularly wants to hear from you, as does Karen, a child you helped, now grown up, who would like to thank you.

“We would love to track down Fiona O, that’s what she called herself,” says Rantzen. “She was a Scottish volunteer counsellor who helped this child, now a young adult, who says she wouldn’t be here without the help she had. She showed me a copy of the letter Fiona had sent her. I would love to get a message to Fiona, because volunteer counsellors only see a snapshot. They don’t get to see the end of the story and Karen would like to thank her.”

Rantzen is not just a talker – she’s a listener too, balancing the yin and yang of communication with consummate ease so it’s a no-brainer that the two charities she has set up are all about listening to those in need. Esther is a do-er as well, and uses her skills to make things happen.

Now 77, she blazed a trail for women in the media, presenting the popular TV show, That’s Life! on BBC1 for 21 years until 1994. She also founded two national charities, fought in the 2010 General Election, was awarded an OBE, a Damehood, multiple BAFTAS and doctorates, and along the way managed to have a laugh. On That’s Life!, a magazine mix of hard items and humour, as well as getting us all to wear seatbelts (yes, there was a time when a lot of people just didn’t bother), raising awareness of child abuse and championing child organ donation, they also provided all the talking dogs (“sausages”) and rude vegetables a pre-internet generation required. On top of that she raised a family of three – Miriam, TV presenter Rebecca and Joshua, with award-winning documentary filmmaker Desmond Wilcox.

When Childline launched in 1986 it hit a nerve – 50,000 attempted calls the first night, and levels stayed that high for six weeks. “We couldn’t answer all those calls and prayed they would keep trying,” she says. “I still get emails from children who tried that first night and got through, and from those who didn’t but the knowledge someone was there gave them courage and confidence. I know from their emails that Childline transformed their lives and for the first time they had hope that things could change, that someone did care and it wasn’t their fault. That remains our message to young people: someone does care, they are valued and it’s not their fault.”

Thirty years on Rantzen is in reflective as well as optimistic mode, a timely Janus looking to the past and future of the charity she created and the challenges young people face.

“When I look back I’m amazed at those very first calls – often from red phone boxes where children had run in the middle of the night, with drunks banging on the glass – and for the first seven years or so the most common problem was sexual abuse because it had been the great taboo. They hadn’t been able to talk about it to anyone else and thought they wouldn’t be believed. They thought it was their fault, were extremely ashamed and guilty, and didn’t know how to ask for help. So things have improved since then.”

She goes on, “And now young people have mobile phones so they can ring safely wherever they are and can contact us online – 72 per cent of our counselling sessions are now done online. Also young people recognise more that sexual abuse is not their fault. Except when it comes to sexting, where they are persuaded to send explicit photographs. That’s part of the new dangers that have become more common with the internet. Because sexting has been normalised it leads young people into danger of being pressured into giving money or engaging in sexual activities and other things they are not happy doing, for fear images they have put online will be sent to friends and family.”

Yet while Rantzen highlights the new dangers that technology presents for the young – cyberbullying is another – she also points out the benefits of the internet age with most children having access to mobiles, tablets and computers.

“The internet is also a place that enables young people to get help from Childline, from our message board, through emails and one-to-one counselling online. A group of kids came to one of our Childline bases the other day and I said if you were really unhappy would you find it easier to ring up Childline or talk to us online and unanimously they wanted to talk to us online. They felt more comfortable, and it’s the way they talk to each other.”

Although more than four million young people have been helped over the years Rantzen is keen to reach more. “One in four doesn’t get through to us,” she says, and more money and volunteer counsellors are needed.

“Our money comes from the public, from fantastic people who do generous things and from those like Scotmid Co-operative and their customers who come up with the most ingenious ways of raising money. I personally think that the abseilers are out of their minds – and extraordinary and impressive.”

With the first Childline generation grown up, they are talking about their experiences and in turn fundraising and going into caring professions. “Saved children save other children,” she says. “Also we have outreach in schools and I think, I hope, Childline has become part of the language.

“But The Silver Line hasn’t and we need to spread awareness, because there are still too many who have never heard of it.”

The Silver Line is Rantzen’s other charity, the helpline she set up for older people who are feeling isolated or who suffer from intense loneliness who would love to have someone to talk to. It’s free, confidential and open 24/7, and aims to link older people to services that exist around the country, provide a befriending service to fight loneliness and also empower anyone suffering abuse or neglect, putting them in touch with specialist services. There are regularly weekly friendship phone calls, group calls and letters for those who prefer the written word or are hearing impaired.

Rantzen stresses the number: “0800 4 70 80 90. So people remember, we set it out this way – 0800 because it’s free, then who’s it for, 4, and it’s for the 70, 80, 90 year olds. Easy.”

The Silver Line came about from Rantzen’s own experiences after her husband Desmond Wilcox died in 2000, then her children grew up and left home. Writing about her loneliness in the media, she touched a nerve with the public and the idea of another helpline was born.

“I think it’s because I downsized and found myself living alone aged 71. For the first time I really did feel that loneliness and when I wrote about it was inundated with so much response. Some of the letters said how brave of you to be so honest and I realised there is a stigma attached to loneliness, to admitting it. Twenty five years earlier there had been a stigma attached to abuse happening to children and now there’s a stigma about loneliness among older people, so could a helpline be the answer?”

It was and since its inception in 2013 The Silver Line has helped more than a million and a half older people, “most of whom tell us they have nobody else in their lives they can talk to,” she says.

“Loneliness is usually associated with loss. Loss of a loved one – they’ve died, moved away or may be suffering from dementia so have moved away emotionally – or the loss of sight or hearing, or of a driving licence. It can be very painful but having someone to ring on a regular basis and people to talk to makes all the difference, gives them something to look forward to and to feel valued.

“Admitting to loneliness is a bit like being in a restaurant nobody wants to eat in. People feel it reflects badly on themselves and also they don’t want to be a burden on their families who might be struggling.”

Esther, however, has no fear of speaking out, publicly or privately. She walks the talk and she’s never off the phone, whether work-related, or to family and friends.

“I’ve got two friends I ring every day, probably about four times. And my late husband and I used to phone each other at least half a dozen times a day. So I’m very accustomed to the telephone being a lifeline in my own life. I think the telephone can be a heart to heart, mind to mind way of communicating with people, sometimes easier than face to face.

“With my friends we talk about anything and everything. Except Brexit! We don’t talk about Brexit. Politics is fine, Brexit isn’t. And Trump – the good thing about Trump is he’s not here so we can’t blame ourselves for Trump.”

She laughs. Has she always been a talker?

“I don’t know…. I hope I’m a listener too. It’s possible to be both.”

Still full of life, Rantzen doesn’t appear to be slowing down. The night before she’s done a public Q&A in a London theatre with her daughter Rebecca and would like to do more, there’s Childline and The Silver Line, two grandsons of four and two, and she was due to board a cruise to take in the Northern Lights this month. She’s always been good at juggling a busy schedule, but admits it wasn’t always easy when the children were young.

“It was terrible. I was guilty at work, not being at home, and guilty at home, not being at work. And my children sometimes use it against me,” she says, ruefully and laughs.

Did they ever threaten to phone Childline?

“In fact two of them have rung Childline and found it very useful. I don’t know what they said, but there you are…

“You see Childline works through the child and the child talks to them, and often it’s the parents who help their children get through on the helpline, and Childline helps them talk to their parents. So it’s a collaboration, all those who really care about the children working together.”

Despite the challenges of a busy career and home life, Rantzen only has two regrets, that she didn’t learn to dance as a child – “then I might have done better on Strictly [she took part in the second series in 2004], poor Anton, bless his heart”, and that she hadn’t learnt to cook better.

“Desmond was rather good,” she says. “He did a wonderful roast lamb with onion sauce. It was terrific! Gorgeous. Sunday afternoons...mmmm.” She laughs again, her voice warm down the phone. A phone call with Rantzen is a positive experience that also embraces the difficult subjects she’s made it her job to champion.

“I suppose as a journalist, I tend to look into dark corners and see if there’s a way we can focus a little light and improve things a bit,” she says. “That’s definitely a need in me, I suppose. I find that very satisfying.”

And a healthy injection of That’s Life! style fun. Rantzen has always been a big believer in the power of laughter.

“I think it’s important. In fact if I were prime minister I’d make it a law: everyone should have fun at least once a day. One of the sad things is when I ask our Silver Line callers what do you do for fun and so many of them say oh, I haven’t had fun for years. Fun’s just for young people. No, it isn’t!”

With our time up she’s going to fulfil her fun quota, enjoying Mel Brooks on BBC’s, The One Show, on iPlayer.

“I was watching that when you rang,” she says. “Mel Brooks is my hero. He’s brilliant. He’s 91 and just extraordinary. He always was a genius, and he still is, and people improve with time. If they’re lucky and keep their strength, people just improve with time.”

Childline, call 0800 1111, 
www.childline.org.uk; 
The Silver Line, 0800 4 70 80 90, 
www.thesilverline.org.uk